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Review

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley Are Truly Desperate Housewives in HBO's Big Little Lies

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HBO

Based on Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies starts on a funny if familiar note of suburban satire in the form of one Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon).

Madeline is a neurotically dynamic stay-at-home mom in affluent Monterey, California. Control freak, taskmaster, breeder of grudges—she’s described as “an itty-bitty ball of rage”—she’s at war with another straining-after-perfection mother, Renata (Laura Dern).

She’s not above ruining Renata’s daughter’s birthday party by playing the ultimate trump card: luring away the invited children with tickets to Frozen on Ice. “I love my grudges,” she says. “I tend to them like little pets.” Madeline’s problem is that such pets, like Gremlins, easily grow into monsters and devour everyone, owners included.

 

Below this comedy there runs a much darker story — framed, in fact, by a violent death. (In a clever narrative device, we gradually learn details of the death, but not the victim’s identity, in flashforward interviews with witnesses.) One of Madeline’s friends, the beautiful, accomplished Celeste (Nicole Kidman), is being physically abused by her husband (Alexander Skarsgård), and another, Jane (Shailene Woodley), is so frightened (of whom? of what?) she keeps a loaded pistol beneath her pillow.

Superbly acted, Lies turns out to be less about catfighting wives than the bruising, even soul-killing sexual struggle between men and women. In spirit it’s not all that far off from Top of the Lake, director Jane Campion’s unsettling police mystery set in a small town in New Zealand. Only here the real estate is mint.

Big Little Lies premieres on HBO, Sunday, Feb. 19 ,at 9 p.m. ET.